A couple years ago, I wrote an impressions post for Total War: Rome II with a tentative review score of 5 out of 10. I never got around to writing a full review of the game because it remained in a near constant state of flux for over a year after its release. The developers kept adding new DLC ranging from modest culture packs to the tiny Blood & Gore pack. Last year, Creative Assembly released a massive DLC pack that also included across-the-board balance updates and expansion of some of the game's core features. This "Emperor Edition", and its attached Imperator Augustus campaign was free to everyone who bought the original Rome II, and so I decided to give it a try to see if it greatly improved the game.
Blood & Gore costs a few dollars extra for those who want it, and increases the ESRB rating to Mature.
Core gameplay has subtle changes
Most of the changes to the core game are subtle, but they do add up to create a more enjoyable experience. The A.I. isn't nearly as bad as it originally was, and naval battles are actually playable now. Building effects have been completely rebalanced in order to avoid the problems with rampant squalor and lack of food that plagued the core game, and the politics systems have been changed to be more active and relevant to the game. Unfortunately, many of these changes are so sweeping, that they break existing campaign save games, meaning that if your version of Rome II was automatically updated, then you lost the ability to continue with any of your previous campaigns.
The most notable changes to empire management is that resources and building upgrades allow for much greater specialization of your various regions. This combined with the rebalancing of squalor and food means that there is incentive to actually upgrade your buildings past the first couple of levels. You also have some more meaningful decisions on what buildings you want to build and upgrade.
Squalor is no longer an intractable restriction towards building the glory of Rome.
Cities still physically grow on the map as the population grows and more buildings are constructed, and many of the high level buildings can add unique visual flairs to individual cities. It's also informative, since it's easy to see (at a glance) what infrastructure a city might have, which can help you manage your own empire, and can help you to assess the worth of a city for potential conquest.
A.I.s have also been designed to build higher-level settlements and to manage their armies better. Having higher-level buildings means that they have larger armies with more advanced units and better equipment. They provide a much greater challenge, as well as more tempting targets of conquest now. I haven't run into situations in which major factions (Carthage) dissolve into rebellions at the start of the game like I used to see in the base game.
Higher morale means battles last longer
Perhaps the best improvement that's been made by the post-release patches and the Emperor Edition is that the real-time battles are paced much better. Unit morale has been significantly tweaked so that units don't route and flee as soon as they make contact with a superior enemy force. Battles will generally take more than just a couple of minutes to complete, but they still aren't anywhere close to occupying the entire hour that the battle timer allows.
You'll actually have time to move some support units to help out an outnumbered defender before they flee, so there's also a lot more strategy involved in the individual battles. Reserve forces and cavalry flanking maneuvers have more relevance, and generals actually have time to reach front-line units in order to use their powers. You don't have to just clump all your units together in a single wall and ram them into your opponent anymore. You can even engage the enemy with a smaller force if you are stuck having to wait for reinforcements to arrive.
Tactical battles are slower, making cavalry and reserves more relevant, and allowing for more strategic thinking.
Speaking of cavalry, they are actually useful now, since units are generally more responsive to movement commands. In the initial launch version, I found cavalry to be useless because once they engaged an enemy unit, it was almost impossible to disengage without the whole unit getting routed or wiped out. Basically the only thing they were useful for was chasing down enemy skirmishers or flanking artillery. Now, I actually build and use cavalry because they are useful for hit-and-run attacks against regular melee infantry. You still want to keep them away from the pointy end of spears and pikes, but that's to be expected.
I still wish the battles were slowed down a little bit more, but the pacing is a lot better than it was at release. I still rarely see battles last more than 5 minutes of actual fighting, and I still routinely have to pause the game in order to issue orders because unit movement and combat happens so fast ... [More]
Shadow of Mordor was a game that almost sold me on the next gen consoles. I knew I was going to need a PS4 for Bloodborne, and I was very tempted to buy one early so that I could play Mordor. The central game mechanic of orc NPCs fighting amongst each other in order to become Sauron's personal favorite sounded like an interesting mechanic for organic story-telling. It was a concept that sounded like something truly deserving of the name "next gen". The biggest thing that held me back was the fact that the game was also available on last-gen consoles, so I figured it probably wasn't pushing any serious boundaries of game design.
Bat-Assassin's Creed: Arkham Middle Earth
The basic gameplay is highly derivative of Assassin's Creed and the Batman Arkham games. It ports both of these feature sets more or less as competently as those original games, including the same perks and problems. The free running feature suffers from the same lack of control that plague's Assassin's Creed, in that it's sometimes hard to predict exactly where the character will land, and he loves to climb up a wall if you run too close to it. Is it really that hard to allocate a dedicated "climb" or "jump" button?! In Mordor's defense, every button on the controller is mapped to something, so at least it has an excuse (unlike Assassin's Creed with its redundant jump button).
The martial culture of the orcs means that when they find a dead comrade,
they assume he was murdered by an ambitious peer, leaving the player off-the-hook.
Stealth mechanics work pretty well; although the orcs are a bit oblivious to my movements through the game world. Sometimes, I can be moving right across their field of vision within 10 feet of them, but because I'm crouched or hanging off a wall, they just don't see me. Orcs don't care much about each other. Their martial culture means that when they find a fellow orc dead, they assume that he was killed due to his own stupidity, or in a brawl / duel with another orc. This removes the need to drag and dispose of bodies while also masking the fact that orcs don't look for the player when they find a dead body. There are examples of stealth games in which enemy guards don't notice or care about dead bodies that they find, and that's always immersion-breaking. Shadow of Mordor cleverly turns what could have been an immersion-breaking limitation of the A.I. into an appropriate element of the world and narrative. As long as they don't actually see you kill their fellow orc, you can rest assured that throwing an archer off a ledge won't alert any guards who pass below to your presence.
Combat mechanics are almost identical to Arkham Asylum, except you have an ethereal bow instead of all the gadgets or grappling hook. But it also blends some elements of Assassin's Creed insta-kills into the fighting mechanics as well. Fights are much more challenging than in Assassin's Creed because you can't insta-kill enemies when you parry them. Instead, you can stun them and then perform an execution or coup de grace, but you're not impervious during this time. You have to time your coup de graces appropriately in order to avoid being hit in the middle of slitting a prone orc's throat. There are insta-kill special attacks that behave a bit more like Assassin's Creed's counter kills, but you have to build up a combo streak before they become available.
Executing a coup de grace [LEFT] on a single orc in a mob requires split-second precise timing.
Or you can perform a combat execution [RIGHT] mid-combo if you get your hit streak high enough.
Attacks are fluid, controls are responsive, timing is tight, and you can counter or dodge out of any single attack or action. This all combines to give the player a tremendous sense of control as long as you are patient and deliberate in your button-pressing. The strict timing will severely punish you for button-mashing, which makes the combat challenging and satisfying throughout the game. [More]
In my Skyrim review, I pretty much only considered the base game content. But the game does include three paid DLC packs that are fairly hit-or-miss. Instead of making my original review longer and more complicated (it's already long enough), I'll lump all the DLC reviews into this one post.
As a reminder, I am playing the PS3 version of the game, so my review applies specifically to the console version. Many (if not all) of my complaints can probably be relieved on the PC by mods. Sadly, I do not have access to mods...
Table of contents
- Hearthfire adds more meaningless time-sinks
- Stupid vampires create genuine motivation in Dawnguard
- Dragonborn hides worthwhile rewards behind an unmotivated adventure and horde of glitches
Skyrim is one of the biggest names of this console generation. It's already earned the status of "classic" in some circles. It's over three years old now, and I've been playing it (and its DLC) on my PS3 off and on for much of that time. I've been wanting to write a review, but I just never felt that I had progressed far enough into the game to have a full idea of its overall quality. Considering how long the game's been out, and how successful it's been both critically and commercially, this is more of a retrospective than a true review, since I'm not going to influence anybody's purchase decision. All I can do at this point is talk about what I think he game did right, and what it did wrong, so that future games can hopefully improve on the formula.
After years of playing, I've finally made enough progress with various characters to feel comfortable writing a review. With the recent rumors that Fallout 4 may reuse Skyrim's engine, I feel that this review actually has some relevance still.
The game also includes DLC, which I have reviewed separately in a another post.
The engine finally works! … Mostly …
It seems like Bethesda’s open-world game engine is finally maturing. It’s still a little rough around the edges and has its fair share of bugs and glitches (particularly pertaining to companion characters and home customization), but I was amazed when I realized that, for the first time with a Bethesda RPG, I had been playing the game for weeks without needing to consult the online wiki to find a work-around for a glitch that rendered any characters missing, quests inaccessible, or items missing! With Oblivion and the two Fallout games, it didn’t take more than a few hours of gameplay to start running into such glitches.
The large, open world is finally stable enough to be more fun than frustrating.
My roommate actually had a game-breaking glitch that prevented him from saving after the initial character creation (including auto-saves), so he lost a whole Saturday afternoon’s worth of progress and had to restart the game. That one was a doozy, and admittedly the worst bug that I've experienced so far in any Bethesda game! But these problems have been the exception rather than the norm.
So that’s one big check mark in Skyrim’s favor compared to previous Bethesda games!
Removing level-scaling makes leveling a reward rather than a punishment
Believe it or not, it wasn't the frequency of glitches that deterred me from finishing Oblivion; it was the level-scaling system. On paper it seemed like a good idea. Leveling up the enemies, quests, and loot so that the game is consistently challenging and rewards are consistently worthwhile sure sounded like a good idea!
Oblivion's level-scaling resulted in a world overrun by trolls, glass-armored bandits, and Daedra.
But in practice, it turned out to be completely ruinous. Leveling felt more like a punishment than a reward, as everything in the world also became progressively harder. This issue was compounded by the poor balance between different classes. If you weren't leveling your combat skills, and had created a class built around - say - Mercantile, Athletics, and Acrobatics then you could easily over-level early in the game simply by walking around and talking to NPCs, only to get slaughtered in the first Oblivion gate because the enemies were stronger than you and you couldn't talk your way out of the fight.
Skyrim fortunately, does not retain Oblivion's strict level-scaling feature.
Some quests, enemies, and loot are scaled, but most things are not (or they're only slightly scaled). Now, bandits are always just bandits, overpowering enemies start the game overpowered, and the world does not suddenly become exclusively populated by trolls and Daedra halfway through the game. "Dungeon bosses" do seem to scale with the character’s level. As you start going up in levels, you’ll start to notice that the grunts in the dungeons are trivial to fight and leave worthless loot. You’ll actually feel like all that leveling has paid off! Then you get to the "boss" at the end of the dungeon and might get your ass handed to you and have to reload several times.
Hard areas should be hard, and easy areas should be easy. It's just mildly annoying that this game gives you no indication which it’s going to be until you’re already a mile underground, and the difficulty varies wildly - even within a single dungeon crawl.
Most ambient encounters aren't scaled to the player's level, so bandits always remain just bandits.
Removing the class skills frees up the player to develop whatever skills he or she needs without the compulsion to micro-manage leveling class skills versus non-class skills. Character development feels much more natural and organic, and you can change your specialization at any time if circumstances change ... [More]
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft set a major milestone for human space exploration earlier this week. Its approach of Pluto means that every solar body that is now - or ever has been - considered a "planet" has been visited by at least one NASA space probe. The probe was launched in January of 2006 (back when Pluto was still a "planet"), and it will continue out beyond Pluto and into the mysterious Kuiper Belt to continue its exploration of the solar system.
In the meantime, the probe has sent back months-worth of high-resolution images and scans for NASA scientists to study. The early results are already full of surprises.
New Horizon's first, high-res photograph of Pluto (July 14, 2015).
Pluto - it turns out - is not the old, craggy, cratered world that many scientists expected it to be. In fact, it appears quite young, with tall, rocky mountains and nary a single impact crater. This is surprising considering the body's proximity to the Kuiper Belt, which contains numerous asteroids, and other small, rocky bodies left over from the formation of the solar system.
Large mountains were found on Pluto.
The probe also found possible evidence of frozen water. Frozen nitrogen and methane were expected, but early photographs suggest that frozen water may also make up a large portion of Pluto's crust. This is exciting for scientists because the presence of water (even in frozen ice form) is a possible indicator of life. There doesn't appear to be any liquid water (at least not yet), so the prospects for life are much better on Jupiter's moon Europa (which may have underground liquid oceans warmed by subterranean vents), or Saturn's moon Titan (which has a dense atmosphere and possible liquid surface water). But it at least adds Pluto to the list of possible targets of further study.
New Horizons was actually making discoveries long before it reached Pluto. In 2007, it captured video of a massive volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io. It was a pretty spectacular sight to behold.
A five frame video of a massive volcanic plume on Jupiter's moon Io (taken in 2007).
As an interesting piece of trivia: the New Horizons craft also contains the cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh, the man who first discovered Pluto in 1930. He had requested that his ashes be sent to space. Not only did NASA oblige, but they send his ashes to the very body that he became famous for discovering. He had died in 1997, and you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more fitting interment for an astronomer.
More information about Pluto and the New Horizons mission can be found on NASA's official webpage at https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html.
A history of the images of Pluto.
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